USS Oriole has 'the durability of Cal'


There's a new Oriole in town, and this one's even more powerful than mighty Cal.

The Navy's newest mine-hunting ship, the fiberglass USS Oriole, was commissioned yesterday at the Inner Harbor, poised next to the Civil War-era Constellation, the last all-sail ship built for the service.

With swirling naval tunes and thundering gun salutes, hundreds watched the Oriole's crew -- to the 188-foot ship and line up along the rails, joining a planned class of 12 Navy ships designed to meet the increasing threat of mine warfare.

Dignitaries, including Maryland Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, couldn't help but compare the ship to others by the same name. The mine hunter, said the congressman, will have the strength of Frank Robinson, the speed of a Jim Palmer fastball and "the durability of Cal Ripken."

It was the first Navy ship commissioned in the city, although Dundalk -- in Baltimore County -- provided the backdrop for the 1987 commissioning of the USS Antietam, an Aegis-class cruiser. Navy officials said the ship's name made Baltimore a natural site for the commissioning.

The fifth in the class of mine hunters, all are being named after birds, including Pelican, Robin, Osprey and Kingfisher. Navy Secretary John H. Dalton, whose office selects the ships' names, only laughed when asked if a future mine hunter would be named Blue Jay.

Barbara Robinson, wife of O's Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, is the ship's "sponsor," and according to naval folklore her spirit will be with the ship on its voyages. She joined the ship's commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. Peter F. Grause, in ordering the crew to "come alive" and ceremonially man the mine hunter. With her husband, she donned a USS Oriole cap and toured the hulking gray ship, covered in red, white and blue bunting and colorful pennants.

"Mines are an old problem with new interest, and defeating them is probably the most complex warfare task we now face," Mr. Dalton told the crowd. "They are cheap, reliable and easily accessible to the type of Third World adversaries that will be threatening U.S. interests for the foreseeable future."

During the Persian Gulf War, Iraqi mines damaged two U.S. vessels, an amphibious assault ship and a guided missile cruiser. In 1993, the Navy set up the Mine Warfare Center of Excellence in Ingleside, Texas, to mount a more coordinated effort against the explosive charges. The USS Oriole will join 16 other ships and some 2,500 personnel at Ingleside in December.

Until the first of these mine hunters appeared in May 1993 with its hull, decks and superstructure made of glass-reinforced plastic, U.S. mine hunters were made of wood. European-designed mine hunters have long been constructed of this plastic because many types of mines are activated by the "signatures" of magnetic metal ships.

The fifth of 12 mine hunters expected to be built over the next several years, the Oriole has a speed of 10-plus knots and includes a "Mine Neutralization System," a bathtub sized hunter in bright O's orange. Placed in the water, it's remotely controlled from the ship. The vehicle includes cable cutters to snip floating mines, allowing the crew to blast it away with its 50-caliber machine guns. For a submerged mine, the vehicle carries a 100-pound bomb that will destroy the mine's casing, allowing it to fill with water.

"Hunting mines is not a particularly glamorous job," said Mr. Dalton. "Rather, it is the nuts and bolts, literally 'in-the-mud' work that must be done before the fighting arm of the fleet can sail forward to carry the fight to the enemy."

The $100 million ship's two small berthing compartments have not been sectioned off to include women among the 51-member crew, said Rear Admiral J. D. Pearson, commander of the Navy's Mine Warfare Command. But, he said, "I think that's probable in the future."

There are no tours today of the Oriole, which leaves Baltimore at 9 a.m. tomorrow for Annapolis. It will remain at the Naval Academy until Sept. 25. Navy officials said times will be scheduled for tours.

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